Part of how racism works is by keeping us unsophisticated about how it works. Racism is not simply personal bigotry; it is a subtle, complex, and pervasive system.
This report by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation includes a number of tools for understanding how we talk about racism in the US today. Particularly useful are the discussions of the distinctions between different racist processes — individual-level internalized racism and interpersonal racism and systemic-level institutional racism and structural racism — and their list of seven harmful practices in discussion:
- Individualizing Racism
- Falsely Equating Incomparable Acts
- Diverting From Race
- Portraying Government As Overreaching
- Prioritizing (Policy) Intent Over Impact
- Condemning Through Coded Language
- Silencing History
This article is mostly topical about an old story, but it includes a good brief description of a way to understand the word “racism”:
The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. When we see Phil Robertson talking about how happy black people were in the South during a period of time that we all KNOW was politically ratchet for black people, we can all go, “Yeah, black people weren’t really happy about that, and it’s racist of you to suggest that discrimination wasn’t bad.”
Yet when we hear about big picture stuff like the disproportionate ratio of blacks in prisons, something short circuits in white folks. Suddenly there are plenty of other reasons why these things might “play out that way.” Folks, that’s racism too, both the statistic as well as your denial that there might be anything racial about it.
Here’s the deal with racism:
Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.
Pagan leader Thorn Coyle outlines the need to combat racism in our current historical moment.
The rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” is important because, within these systems, they clearly don’t. Black lives, in the United States, only matter to the systems of capitalism and imperialism as resources to be exploited and cast off.
We have got to turn this around. Black. Lives. Matter.
Someone on my Facebook feed commented this week that all life is sacred, and we shouldn’t preference Black people as being special. I replied that all life is indeed sacred, but some life is more endangered. Black lives are more endangered. This is simple reality. In this, I’m not appealing to empathy or emotion, I’m drawing upon facts.
This is not something over which we can “agree to disagree.” This is a truth.
A look at how easily White people can participate in racism without realizing it, from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.
Coates is also well-known for a sobering history of the mechanisms of racism in the US, The Case for Reparations.
An argument from Scott Madin that while “racist” is a useful adjective, asking whether someone is “a racist” is unhelpful.
Here’s the thing: Using adjectives as nouns obscures meaning, harms discourse, impairs communication, and ultimately reduces our ability to think in a careful and nuanced way about controversial issues, let alone effect social progress. Anyone who wants to see our society become less divided rather than more, and in particular anyone who wants to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of prejudice and modes of oppression, should try hard to avoid the practice, and refrain from calling a person a sexist, or a racist, or a homophobe, instead applying those descriptors to his or her actions.
Madin has a follow up comment, Nouning, Again, on their website.
In 2014, Pagan teacher Thorn Coyle ran a study group on Patheos studying Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
I want us to invoke the Power To Know.
There is a call to start a movement to help overturn the devastation of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration through the Prison Industrial Complex. But before we start a movement, we have to know what we are up against.
The prison industrial complex and the war on drugs have infiltrated every community in the U.S. They have changed our thinking, and how we build culture. Our assumptions are as unchallenged as the water we drink or the air we breathe. We barely notice they’ve become toxic.